aa music

Bono said that “music can change the world because it can change people.” I love that.  Music has an unsuspecting power ready to spring up and re-channel rivers of emotion or thought. With the right soundtrack a 6.5 movie becomes an 8.

So what’s the soundtrack of your life? Of your church? It speaks volumes.

Since I arrived at Westminster I’ve noted the songs we sing each Sunday. This is to ensure balance in our music, but also to be mindful of what we sing. Why? Because music shapes our thinking. I’ve often heard someone say “where in the Bible does it say such-and-such,” but they’re not quoting Scripture, they’re quoting a hymn. Music sticks to our bones. Sinews. As a song-writer I think it has something to do with the marriage of melody and lyrics (and sometimes rhythm) that stirs something within us—but beyond that we’re not sure what makes it happen. That’s the mystery of art.

So here’s a look at our congregational signing at Westminster.

In the past 4.5 years we’ve had about 250 songs in our repertoire. So here are the ones we’ve sung most often.  We’ll start with the #8 slot and move to #1 kind of like a countdown.  At the end I’ll offer a few comments:

8. This is actually a 5-way tie for how often we’ve sung them: We are one in the Spirit, Joyful, joyful we adore you, Be thou my vision, One more step along the world I go, and You are my all in all. Wow, there’s a lot of diversity there! We are one in the Spirit isn’t that new (1938) but feels like it.  Joyful, joyful we adore you is the one based on Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy melody. Be thou my vision, an enduring Irish classic. One more step along the world I go is a bouncy kids’ song. And You are my all in all is another modern praise song. Simple but effective.

7. Next, a three-way tie: How great thou art, Amigos de Cristo, and Shout to the Lord. How great thou art draws together many titanic themes and often summons many a tear; it was made quite popular as one of the Billy Graham revival songs). Amigos de Cristo is a super-catchy children’s song talking about Christian friendship and rebirth.  Shout to the Lord (the one by Darlene Zschech) is another praise song which is just so singable—quickly becoming a modern classic.

6. Another tie: Praise to the Lord, the Almighty and Jesus loves me. Praise to the Lord is a classic cross-denominational song. I’ve heard it in big-organ moments and with guitars around campfires.  And who can argue with Jesus loves me. At the end of his career, great Swiss Thinker Karl Barth (perhaps to modern theology what Walt Disney was to modern movies) was once asked at a conference if he could his theology down to a single line. He shuffled to the mike and said, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

5. This is the day. Another children’s song, and one many people love. (The title is also a personal motto for 2013—Zeh Hayom!) Also a clapper. It’s usually used on Palm Sunday because it’s based on Psalm 118 and connected to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but it’s pulled out at other times too.

4. I, the Lord, of sea and sky. Another newer-ish one from the hymnal. A few years ago there was a survey in the Presbyterian Church in Canada about favourite worship songs/hymns and this was #1 in the country. (Or so I hear.)

3. A tie for third: Shout to the North and I am the Church! You are the Church! The first is a new praise song we introduced a few years ago, and the latter is one of the newer ones from the 1997 PCC hymnal—a great song about the meaning of church. “The church is not a building… We are the church together” and all that.

2. Shine, Jesus, Shine. A great classic. This always brings out the clapping.

1. Drum roll please… In Christ Alone. This is a modern praise song. When we introduced it I was amazed at how young and old alike took to it so quickly. The words tell the narrative of redemption. One of the five Reformation maxims: Solus Christus.

So what does this say about us?

Music choice
Well, before we conclude too much you should first know that I pick most of the music. So it very much reflects what I think will support the praise and direction at Westminster on a particular Sunday. It’s something I pray about and is linked to the Scriptural theme for the week. More recently, our Music Director Jenn Harris has also been picking some of the praise songs as she introduces them to the choir and then to the congregation.

What you’ll also see is a combination of more modern praise songs and more traditional hymns. This reflects our growing “blended” style of music, meaning some old and some new. The intent is unity in diversity. This has very little to do with people’s age. To assume that young people only like modern songs or that older only like traditional hymns is simplistic. “Blended” refers to a mixing together, yes—but even more than that, to a feel of ‘intergenerational’ and warmth.  Multi-generational family gatherings or neighbourhood BBQ’s are “blended,” and so are we.  Our congregation is also increasingly diverse with respect to theological backgrounds so the blended style is good common ground for what I would call a ‘graciously evangelical’ feel.

Children’s Music
There are also a lot of children’s songs. We’ve decided to be very repetitious with the children’s music—and, to a lesser extent, the praise songs—as we introduce them so that people learn them. With the children, many of them are too young to read (or can’t follow along with the words fast enough) but we want them to learn the songs. (And so do they.) So repetition of songs geared toward them is another way to meaningfully encourage their worship with the wider group. It’s also the reason why I moved the Lord’s Prayer toward the start of the service when we’re all together.  People say that children are “the future” of the church.  That’s not true.  Children are the present of the church. We worship together.

In addition to music style is feel and content. How is it that In the Garden and Grace Alone can work so well together in the same service? It’s because they have the same feel and spirit-of-content even though they’re different “styles.” Lyric content blends songs together more than we know. Then consider the fact that with a screen at the front, people are less aware that different songs are from this or that hymnal or a praise book or printed insert. They just look up, sing, are moved and notice how the experience blends with the rest of the service.

It should also be noted that I haven’t included funerals (or ‘memorials’ or ‘celebrations of life’ or whatever title we use) in the above. If I did, Amazing Grace would have made the list and would have been close to #1.

My Personal #1
I call this my death-bed song. If you had one last song to listen to before you died, which would you choose? Oh, so tough! For me it’s What wondrous love is this. It’s an American folk hymn circa the early 1800’s. As a church we usually sing it during Holy Week, and sometimes at baptisms. It blows my mind every time. Uplifting and haunting at once; it has a theological simplicity and depth that towers over most songs and a melodic maturity that can move mountains.  Plus, it has a special significance for me as we use it in our house as a lullaby.

So there you go. This was fun to do!  As Westminster continues to evolve, I wonder what on the list will change and what won’t.

What is your favourite?